Jos. A. Bank bets on corporate casual

Clothier: Jos. A. Bank is emphasizing corporate casual attire in its effort to improve sales and earnings.

September 21, 1999|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The new look at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc.'s flagship store in Towson reflects what many employees are seeing in the workplace -- fewer suits, more golf shirts.

At Bank's store at the Shops at Kenilworth, corporate casual attire has taken on a new prominence. V-neck sweaters and casual shirts in coordinated grays, blues and maroons sit in neat piles on wooden display tables. Sweaters stack up next to casual jackets along the wall. Mannequins wear sports coats with sweaters. Casual apparel now shares nearly half the space with the more formal attire hanging on the other side of the store.

"We're not just the business suit, button-down store anymore," said Andrew A. Giordano, chairman and interim chief executive officer of the Hampstead-based chain. "We're trying to make it fun, teaching [shoppers] what corporate casual can be. There's a lot of confusion -- It's not ripped jeans and T-shirts."

Changes are taking place not only at Bank's largest store but throughout the 108-store chain, executives said. The men's apparel retailer, which plans to open six to 10 stores in the next 10 months, has remodeled nine stores and built 28 in the new format since 1997, capitalizing on a trend that emerged early this decade.

With the remodeling of the Towson store, which included new flooring and fixtures, Bank also unveiled its Millennium Shop, featuring tuxedos for end-of-century events, and expanded its shoe department. Ultimately, all stores will resemble the Towson store, though on a smaller scale.

Bank's suit and tie heritage remains firmly in place, but corporate casual attire has become the fastest-growing segment of the retailer's business, said Frank Tworecke, president and chief operating officer. While 65 percent of Bank's sales are in tailored clothing, a fifth of that is sports coats and trousers, and that segment is growing.

"Managers of companies have realized they were not specific," in relaxing dress codes, he said. "They want executives to look professional."

With its newer format, the chain hopes to show that "you can be casual and still look professional," he said.

The trend toward a more casual workplace started with "casual Friday," which allowed employees to dress down one day a week. Many employers found that communication between management and employees flowed more easily, and workers became more productive on that day, said Roger Herman, chief executive officer of the Herman Group, a consultant specializing in the work force and workplace trends. Over the years, even companies known for button-down cultures, such as IBM Corp. and Tandy Corp., have relaxed their dress codes.

Consultants attribute the evolution to a variety of factors: the backlash to 1980s power dressing, the growth of home-based businesses, the high-tech revolution and younger baby boomers rising to senior management jobs.

Now, "I'd be hard pressed to sit here and think of a company that has a formal dress code," Herman said.

Retailers such as Gap Inc. and Levi Straus & Co. have helped solidify the trend by successfully marketing khakis and, for Levi, the Dockers brand. Other chains and manufacturers have followed. Brooks Brothers, for one, is recasting its preppy image at its 82 full-price stores to embrace corporate casual.

Men's apparel, while a growing segment, has trailed overall retail growth for the 12 months that ended in August, compared with the corresponding period a year earlier, according to Department of Commerce statistics.

"Menswear retailers, such as Jos. Bank, are scrambling to find pockets of strength, and casual wear is one of those spots where demand is running above average," said Kenneth Gassman, a retail analyst with Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Va.

The fashion element in casual wear appeals to women shoppers as well, who buy more than 60 percent of all menswear, and that has helped drive sales in casual attire at Bank and other retailers, Gassman said.

The growing popularity of Bank's corporate casual wear has helped the retailer's overall sales, which rose 5 percent to $44.2 million during the second quarter and 2 percent at locations open at least a year. That increase came after a first-quarter drop of 8 percent in comparable sales, which the company attributed to a failed promotion in March. During the same period, the chain saw its earnings dip 12 percent, attributing the decline to costs of operating new stores, increased advertising to sell leftover spring inventory and becoming Y2K compliant.

Bank stock rose 40.63 cents yesterday to $4.9375, up slightly from its 52-week low of $4.5313 reached Friday.

Gassman applauded the retailer's strategy in retrofitting stores to focus more on corporate casual.

"That's where the growth is in the market," he said.

Pub Date: 9/21/99

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